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The Non-League rising stars: who will be going to the big leagues?

Every young talent who plies his trade for Maldon Town or Tooting & Mitcham United dreams of one day taking to the field at Old Trafford, Anfield or even Parc des Princes. It might sound like the stuff of Roy of the Rovers boyhood fantasy, but the truth is, everyone has to start somewhere.

Sure, there are the Harry Kanes of this world who pen a scholarship contract with a Premier League team on their 16th birthday, but these are the exceptions, not the rules. Look at the Wikipedia page for nine out of ten Premier League football stars and you will see the humble roots from which they began. Let’s take a look at a few examples before thinking about who might be next to join their ranks.

From tiny acorns…

Mention “humble roots” in football and all eyes inevitably turn to England and Leicester striker Jamie Vardy. The lad from Sheffield joined his boyhood heroes Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, but the comic book dream looked to be over before it had even begun when they released him before he’d even turned 17.

Non-League obscurity seemed to beckon, as he joined Stocksbridge Park Steels in the Northern Premier League. Sixty-six goals in three seasons made him the most talked-about player in the league, and after stints at Halifax and Fleetwood Town, Leicester shocked the sporting world by swooping in with a cheque for £1.7 million – the most ever paid for a non-league player.

Another name worth mentioning is Watford striker Troy Deeney. If you are ever looking for an example of a bad lad who turned his life around, look no further than this lad from the wrong side of Birmingham. Deeney left school at 16 with no qualifications and a knack for keeping the wrong company. A fight outside a pub turned ugly and resulted in a ten-month prison sentence, but this was when Deeney changed the script.

When he regained his liberty, he studied for his GCSEs and started playing football for local side Chelmsley. A scout from Walsall noticed his talent and offered him a professional deal with the League One club, and from there it wasn’t long before the Hornets came calling.

Made in Chelmsley: Troy Deeney in action at Prenton Park for Walsall in 2007 (photo: Action Images)

Who will be next?

These are just two of the most heart-warming examples, but there are hundreds more. Today, we can look across the wealth of Non-League sides and see plenty of precocious talent. The question is, who has what it takes to go to the very top?

In the online age, when fans from across the country and indeed the world, can log on and see live odds on all manner of matches, lower and Non-League football has attracted a far higher profile than in years gone by. Here are a few names to watch:

  • Luke Coulson – Ebbsfleet United are a team with something of a reputation for having real talent in their ranks, and any Non-League player who gets an England call-up has to have something about him. The winger spent ten long years in the Manchester City academy only to miss out on a professional deal. At 23, time is on his side, and the enterprising young talent is also developing a growing career in journalism.
  • Matt Briggs – described by some as the hottest prospect outside the league, Briggs seemed certain for great things as a teenager. Yet at 16, and with a Burnley scholarship all but assured, he suffered a cruciate injury that sidelined him for two years. Today, he plays for Dorking Wanderers in the Isthmian League, but at just 21, do not for one moment think that we have seen the last of him.
  • Jake Robinson – it’s not all about precocious talent. Billericay Town’s mercurial striker turned 31 last year, and has seen and done it all. An early spell at Brighton & Hove Albion was followed by stints at Aldershot, Shrewsbury and Northampton Town to name but a few. In March 2017, he signed for little-known Billericay for £24,000. Is a return to the big time really possible? With Robinson, you should rule nothing out.

It could happen to anyone

The great thing about Non-League football is that there is so much talent around that you never know where the next big name will pop up from. The even better news is that with more eyes focused on the smaller clubs than ever, there is less chance of the next Jamie Vardy slipping through our fingers unnoticed.

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